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Changes coming to North Coast's legislative landscape

  • California State Assemblymember Marc Levine talks to a group of Stanford Law School students about his election to office in the California State Capitol building, in Sacramento on Thursday, January 23, 2014. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Sweeping changes across the North Coast's political landscape will present major challenges this election year both for voters and for candidates in state races, with one possible outcome being an almost entirely new and untested slate of leaders handling local problems in Sacramento.

Four of the North Coast's five seats in the state Legislature are being contested this year in reshaped political districts that have sown voter confusion and upset the traditional balance of power.

Sonoma County's standing as political kingmaker may no longer hold true in several races this election season, now that the county's influence is dispersed across three Assembly and two Senate districts.

But it's not just redistricting that has led to what one observer labeled the Year of Disruption in local politics. Also creating upheaval are a relatively new open-primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the final round in November, the influence of moneyed interests in campaigns and a new generation of Democratic Party politicians who have a rare opportunity to seize control.

"It's certainly a paradigm shift," said Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.

The 2014 legislative races are crucial because they could determine who represents the North Coast's interests in Sacramento for many years to come. Under a relaxing of term-limit rules passed by voters in 2012, legislators can serve up to 12 years in a single office.

And yet, there's a sense many voters on the North Coast aren't aware of which district they live in, or who's running.

"There has been a great deal of confusion among folks who are trying to figure out who is representing them, and who they'll be voting for in the next election," Gale said.

Political districts are reshaped every 10 years after the census to adjust for population shifts, ensuring that each district has roughly the same number of voters. But many people still are struggling to understand the boundaries set in 2010.

Santa Rosa, for instance, is in a coastal Senate district represented by Noreen Evans that stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border, but Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma are at the western edge of a district represented by Lois Wolk that spans the Interstate 80 corridor from Vallejo to Davis.

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